England step up World Cup preparations
June 14, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson must ponder all his options over the next few months © Getty Images
When the England squad gather this Sunday for the first time since they raised the Six Nations Championship trophy in March, it will be in what I like to think of as the "Great Escape moment".
Old heads and newbies and all the inbetweeners will shuffle or stride into the team hotel (doubling for the prison camp in the movie) and mosey around; meeting old mates, shaking hands with those less familiar, pacing the corridors to get the feel of their surroundings and generally staking their ground in their new home. The World Cup, for 30 of them, starts here. The other 15 will finish up in August as the sporting equivalent of Steve McQueen - wrapped up in barbed wire and confined to the Cooler instead of on the plane to New Zealand.
England have held five mini-camps these past few weeks for players such as Hendre Fourie whose seasons did not extend into play-offs or cup finals, or who were not picked for the Saxons. Of the latter group, no more than three or four, including Matt Stevens the versatile prop, are expected to carry on from Saturday's Churchill Cup final in Worcester to Sunday's muster in Surrey. The 45-man training squad, that must be trimmed to the plane party by August 22, is all about setting out a game plan, assessing fitness and dotting the i's and crossing the t's on perhaps the 28th, 29th and 30th names on Martin Johnson's passenger list.
The training schedule is not dissimilar to the pre-World Cup summers of 2003 and 2007 but the significant variation is that in those two years there were June tours beforehand: to New Zealand and Australia in '03 and South Africa in '07. And those two trips differed from each other. One was wildly successful (Wellington, Melbourne and all that); the other, under Brian Ashton, was a definitive duffer. In 2003 the squad just needed a tweak here and there. Fourteen of the team who started in the Melbourne win over Australia would do the same in the World Cup final in Sydney (quiz question: who was the odd man out? **). Four years ago there were perhaps half a dozen players considered definite starters, three months out from the tournament. The many questions at this stage included whether Lawrence Dallaglio would be recalled and had Andy Farrell done enough to get the nod over Toby Flood in the 10-12 position. The answers were yes and yes - Ashton relied on long-in-the-tooth nous over youthful promise. The accepted wisdom is that is why got England to the final, essentially by winning two big matches against Australia with a dominant scrum and France with a tougher set of forwards and half-backs. I wonder whether a bit of that youth might have done better for England in the final, but we will never know.
This summer we have a squad under Johnson probably midway between those previous two in its certainties and quandaries. Is there a need for another option in the centres other than Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan and Riki Flutey? Is it too much to expect Manu Tuilagi to be starting in September? On the other hand, there is no point in naming Tuilagi in the training squad - if indeed he is - if he is not a live candidate to go all the way. Tyros such as Flood, James Haskell, Danny Cipriani and Nick Abendanon were left behind last time. Will Johnson be braver? Perhaps he will give Tuilagi a chance in the first two August matches to prove he is up to it. Brad Barritt has had a good season for Saracens, while Billy Twelvetrees's performances in the Churchill Cup have added to my view that he could be a great back-up midfielder, but both would be vertiginous promotions for Johnson to make in the final 30.
In 2003, England picked their top XV to kick their World Cup campaign off against Georgia. Many of the players had not had much match practice leading into it and were aching and sore afterwards; not body-hardened, for all the early-hours gym work that had gone before it. In '07, the opener against the United States was a let-down, but still an easy win for England. This time around it is Argentina first. Just ask France - losers to the Pumas in Paris on opening night in 2007 - what that could be like. The phrase "must-win" springs to mind. Okay, so the French recovered to reach the semi-finals by beating the All Blacks, but here is one thing we can all agree on: Johnson will not have this plotted that as a feasible route on his World Cup wallchart.
So we may expect a degree of rotation in England's matches against Wales on August 6 and 13, when some players such as Delon Armitage and Mark Cueto will be seeing their first action in three months. But it will surely be something very close to England's first XV who will take on Ireland in Dublin on August 27. After all, the Argentina match will be just two weeks away by then. The Irish will provide a similar style and quality to the Pumas. It is a double-egded sword of a fixture to face up to but two bits of knowledge back it up: the Tri-Nations at the same time will be toughening up the first, second and third favourites to win the World Cup. And Ireland's former coach Eddie O'Sullivan has been regretting his side's soft run-in to the 2007 tournament every day since then.
So we wish the best of, er, British to Flood and Jonny Wilkinson, and Nick Easter and Dylan Hartley, and (depending on selection) Barritt and Tuilagi and Thomas Waldrom and whoever else survives Johnson's first cut to make that first handshake on Sunday evening. Perhaps the biggest question at this sparring stage of the phoney war is the one that will be the most difficult to get an answer to. When they meet will they look into each other's eyes and think "there's a fellow World Cup winner in the making"?
** give yourself a cuddly toy if you got Matt Dawson for Kyran Bracken
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Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday